What is self-esteem?

Your self-esteem is the way you look at or perceive yourself. If you have healthy self-esteem, it means that you like yourself and you believe that you are just as valuable as everyone else. If you have low self-esteem, it means that you believe that you’re inferior to others. People who have low self-esteem tend to focus on what they believe are their shortcomings, and sometimes blow those flaws out of proportion. Thinking this way can make it easy to ignore your strengths and achievements. 

If you’d like to know more on how to dispute that inner chatter (self-talk) when it makes you feel less than, check out our Challenging Negative Self-Talk article.

How does your self-esteem affect your life?

Your self-esteem can affect how you feel, how you relate to other people, how you deal with challenges and how relaxed and safe you feel in your daily life. Here are a few examples:

The way you feel. In order to be happy you need to like yourself. If you have low self-esteem or if you’re constantly putting yourself down, you’re more likely to feel depressed, anxious or unhappy than someone who has a positive view of himself or herself.

Your relationships. Low self-esteem can influence the way you interact with other people. For instance, you might find yourself being unassertive (not saying what you think, feel or want), and doing things you don’t want to do. Low self-esteem might also cause you to seek constant reassurance from your friends, because deep down, you might not be sure that they like you. Or you might find yourself trying too hard to please other people. You might always agree with them and offer to do things for them in order to”earn” their friendship. Being treated badly by other people can reinforce the belief that you aren’t good enough and lower your self-esteem even more.

Your willingness to move out of your comfort zone. Trying new things and moving out of your comfort zone every now and then is important for growing and developing as a person. Low self-esteem might hold you back from new experiences because you may become overly concerned with the possibility of failure or looking stupid.

How relaxed and comfortable you feel in the world. When your self-esteem is low, it can be difficult to feel relaxed and comfortable in everyday situations. For instance, if you have low self-esteem, you might feel awkward and self-conscious in many situations. You might worry too much about what others think of you, and you might be constantly on the lookout for signs that people don’t like you. If someone doesn’t acknowledge you, you might immediately assume that they don’t like you.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Low Self-Esteem

Low self-esteem can become a vicious circle. For example, if you don’t feel good about yourself, you might withdraw from people and give out unfriendly vibes. You might not look people in the eye, smile or initiate conversations. This kind of behavior might make you appear cold and distant, and as a result, people might not make the effort to be friendly toward you. You might then detect unfriendly vibes from people, and your belief that you’re not very likeable would be reinforced. This is called a “self-fulfilling prophecy” because your low self-esteem affects your behavior towards others, which in turn causes people to be distant toward you and reinforce your original beliefs about yourself. 

Building Healthy Self-Esteem

There are many benefits associated with having good self-esteem—feeling good, taking up appropriate challenges, relating to people as equals and feeling relaxed in daily life situations. Good self-esteem isn’t something that you can achieve overnight. You need to work on it over time. This is particularly important in situations where you’re faced with setbacks or difficulties. Here are a few ways that you can build and maintain healthy self-esteem.

Accept yourself. Every one of us has faults and weaknesses—this is part of being human. The key to good self-esteem is self-acceptance. This means accepting yourself as you are without condemning yourself for your perceived shortcomings.

Avoid labeling yourself. When you don’t reach a goal or perform as well as you hoped, it’s easy to label yourself as”bad” in some way. For example, you might say things like I’m an idiot. This is a form of labeling. Labeling yourself is a negative way of thinking, because it relies on an overgeneralization. Each person is a complex mixture of characteristics, traits, qualities and behaviors, and no one—including you—can be summed up by just one trait. Labeling simply makes you feel bad about yourself, and serves no useful purpose. It’s much more helpful to be specific and stick to the facts. For example, instead of labeling and saying things like I’m a failure, stick to the facts and say I didn’t get the grade I wanted. Check out our article on Common Thinking Errors for more tips on how to avoid labeling.

Recognize your strengths and weaknesses. Having healthy self-esteem means that you are able to feel good about yourself even though you’re not perfect. You can be aware of your strengths and still acknowledge your weaknesses without judging yourself. Many people are too aware of their weaknesses, but ignore their strengths and good qualities. For this reason, it can be helpful to spend some time thinking about all the positive qualities that you take for granted. It might be helpful to make a list of your strengths and weaknesses you’d like to improve upon.

Set goals. Although it’s important to practice self-acceptance, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t aim to improve some things about yourself or your life. Sometimes it’s helpful to set goals for things that you’d like to achieve, or to change things that you aren’t happy with. For example, if you don’t feel comfortable in some social situations, it might be useful to work on your communication skills and taking more social risks. While it’s often very helpful to set meaningful goals, it’s also important to maintain a flexible attitude. This means accepting yourself whether or not you achieve your goals. 

Be objective about situations. When you personalize an event or situation, you take responsibility for things that aren’t your fault, or you blame yourself for negative outcomes without taking all factors into account. In reality, situations and circumstances might have been beyond your control. Instead of personalizing things by saying “I failed because I’m dumb”, be objective and say “I failed because I didn’t study” or “I failed because I don’t like French class.”

Avoid comparisons. Some people are in the habit of comparing themselves to others. They judge themselves on things like their looks, their grades, their friends, their achievements and even their personality. There will always be people who seem to be doing better than you are, and if you compare yourself to them, you’ll end up always feeling unsatisfied with yourself. The reality is that people have different strengths and weaknesses. Focus on your strengths, have realistic expectations of the things that you could change or improve, and most importantly, avoid comparing yourself to others.

Sometimes parents compare siblings. If this happens to you, you might try asking your parents to stop, letting them know how this makes you feel.

Communicate assertively. The way you communicate to other people gives them information on how you feel about yourself. When you communicate what you think, feel or want in a clear way, the unspoken message you give out is I matter and my opinion and needs are as valid and important as anyone else’s. You can communicate assertively by looking another person in the eye and speaking in a clear, audible voice, rather than looking down at your shoes and mumbling, or communicating in hostile, angry tone.

Assertive communication encourages other people to treat you with respect, and helps you to feel good about yourself. Be aware not only of the things you say, but also the way you say them. You’re far more likely to be treated with respect when you communicate your wishes clearly. To learn more about communicating, check out our article on Effective Communication.

For more information about self-esteem:
Acknowledgements: This article was originally developed by youth and staff for

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